Rethinking Early Iron Age Urbanisation in Central Europe: The Heuneburg Site and Its Archaeological Environment

By Fernandez-Gotz, Manuel; Krausse, Dirk | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Early Iron Age Urbanisation in Central Europe: The Heuneburg Site and Its Archaeological Environment


Fernandez-Gotz, Manuel, Krausse, Dirk, Antiquity


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Centralisation and urbanisation processes north of the Alps

Traditionally, Late Iron Age oppida have been considered to be the 'first cities north of the Alps' (Collis 1984; Wells 1984). However, large-scale research projects carried out in recent years in Germany and France have started to challenge this long-established view (Biel & Krausse 2005; Krausse 2008a, 2010; Sievers & Schonfelder 2012). In the light of new data, today we can maintain that the first urban and proto-urban centres in the region developed between the end of the seventh and the fifth centuries BC in an area stretching from Zaivist (Drda & Rybova 2008) in Bohemia, to Mont Lassois (Chaume & Mordant 2011) and Bourges (Milcent 2007) in central France (Figure 1). Among these 'centres of power' that preceded the oppida by several centuries, the best known and most intensively investigated site is the Heuneburg in southern Germany (Kimmig 1983; Gersbach 1995, 1996; S. Kurz 2010; Krausse & Fernandez-Gotz 2012). The results of the excavations leave no room for doubt: this was the site of one of the most important Early Iron Age settlements, a substantial, politically and economically flourishing centre that had extensive connections with areas as distant as Etruria and the Greek colonies (Kimmig 2000).

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The Heuneburg project

Research into the prehistoric landscape around the Heuneburg began in the nineteenth century, when a number of tumuli containing rich grave goods were discovered at Giessubel-Talhau. The objects found there included gold neck- and armrings, the remains of wagons, bronze vessels and other exceptional objects (Kurz & Schiek 2002). In 1937-38 extensive excavations were conducted on the Hohmichele mound, which with a height of 13m and a diameter of 80m is one of the largest tumuli in the whole of Central Europe (Riek & Hundt 1962). The first systematic excavations on the three hectares of the Heuneburg plateau itself, which overlooks the Danube, began only in the 1950s. It was soon clear that the results would surpass all expectations. The discovery of a mudbrick wall based on Mediterranean prototypes and probably erected around 600 BC was spectacular, and soon attracted international attention. The excavations continued until 1979 and produced further substantial results (Kimmig 1983; Gersbach 1989, 1995, 1996). The archaeological material is unusually rich and allows the reconstruction of 14 structural phases during the Late Hallstatt period, together with 10 phases of fortifications, thus providing a remarkable insight into the development of the settlement on the hilltop plateau, which in the Early Iron Age constituted a genuine 'acropolis'. All in all, between 1950 and 1979 approximately one third of the hilltop plateau was systematically excavated and documented.

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For many years it was thought that settlement at the Heuneburg was mainly confined to this central hilltop. Although it was clear as early as the 1950s that there was also an outer settlement beneath the tumuli of the Giessubel-Talhau necropolis, this was thought to cover no more than a few hectares (S. Kurz 2000). However, work in the last 20 years has radically changed this picture. The focus is no longer just on the central hilltop, but has been extended to the surrounding area in the search for further traces of settlement (S. Kurz 2007, 2008, 2010). A combination of field walking, large-scale excavations, geomagnetic prospection and high-resolution airborne LIDAR scans has extended our understanding enormously: old theories have had to be rejected, new ones have been proposed. As a result it can be shown that the central hilltop was only the tip of the iceberg, for the entire settlement at the Heuneburg was in fact divided into three areas: citadel (hilltop plateau), lower town and outer settlement (Krausse & Fernandez-Gotz 2012) (Figure 2). …

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